Saturday, 3 February 2018

2017, the year in butterflies

I can't remember any one moment where my interest in butterflies changed from just noticing them and maybe learning their names, to becoming (mildly) obsessed with them. I haven't started chasing round the country in search of more exotic species, yet, but maybe that will be new for 2018? Meanwhile I am counting the days, eagerly anticipating their return. 

And so I thought I'd do a summary of 2017 in butterflies: when I saw the ones I saw, and post some of the better photos I took of them. There are supposed to be 30~32 butterflies to spot in Scotland. Last year I saw and photographed 17 of them. Of the other 15, some I'd travel to see, others I can wait till they cross my path. One - the Small Skipper wasn't even on the list of Scottish Butterflies. (Hence the 30~32 species.) And then there's the White Letter Hairstreak: first sighting in Scotland in 133 years making the national news, drifting North with global warming. It's not on the list either. But here are those I saw...

The 9th of March was unseasonably warm and this Small Tortoiseshell (above) at Seacliff would have come out of it's Winter shelter in search of nectar. Probably straight back afterwards as it wasn't until the other end of the March (the 25th) when I saw another and the first Peacock, both enjoying the sunshine. Both near the coast along East Lothian way. They are 2 of the handful that overwinter and so are probably among the first to anticipate seeing, given warmer weather. They are also large and have lively markings, cheering up any run.

Small Tortoiseshell - number 1!


Speckled Wood

A whole 2 months till this Speckled Wood made an appearance in the woods between Dirleton and Yellow Craigs on the 27th May. They seem to have become more common place round the Lothians in the last few years, or maybe I have just been paying more attention. The literature suggests 2 generations each Summer and that the later brood will be darker and more contrast-full. I have been a big fan since first spotting my first in Newbyth Woods a few years ago.

A striking Cinnabar Moth in Holyrood, 28th May

Damselflies Marl Loch Aberlady 3rd June
Not butterflies but always a delight to see.

A poor year for spotting Orange Tips. Weirdly I had seen several out the car window driving through East Lothian (easy to identify from a distance!) but this was practically the only one all year I got close enough to photograph. 7th June.

The flowers lured Small and Green-Veined Whites into Shona and Neil's garden in Orkney although they are a common sight in June. I am not a huge fan as they can be skittish and tend to overexpose at a distance, and aren't visually as stimulating as some. I think the flowers had a narcotic effect and these ones were too busy getting high to fly off.

My first Red Admiral of 2017 was also spotted in Orkney, mid-June. Although few were about in the first half of the year, latterly they were the stars of the year.

I think this was a Fritillary caterpillar 

Ringlet, 25th June, Longniddry

Speckled Wood, Aberlady

The first Common Blue and Dark Green Fritillaries both appeared on the same day, 25th June at Aberlady Nature Reserve. We're there most weekends and both these 2 are a treat to come across. Neither are particularly easy to get next to, but that only makes a half decent close up all the richer a reward. 

All the Fritillaries have distressingly similar markings. I think the dark green refers to the body colour having a flush of dark green about it. There is a light green on the underwing but it is a very shy thing and rarely shows off it's undergarments!

By the end of June every sunny trail seemed to have a Red Admiral basking nearby. I came across a clearing between 2 rows of pine trees where dozens of them were sunbathing and flying in whirling dogfights, hovering and sparring in 2s and 3s, while the nearby Rhododendrons were in flower.


First July and what is this ghost (above)? I think it is a very faded Painted Lady and if so it was the only one I saw all year. A couple of years ago they were all over the place and even got a TV prog made about them and their amazing migration from the continent to the UK and how they can take several generations to travel North before heading back South as they don't over-Winter. Apparently a very resilient creature. Well this one wasn't letting tattered and faded wings hold it back, but can't have lasted much longer.

Another dayflying moth - the 5 Spot Burnet. I am a huge fan. 2 reasons: they are spectacular (even if slightly fat and hairy on close inspection) and they are most accommodating. They rarely bother flying off. I believe they taste awful so don't need to evade predators. Great models though! Only around for a fortnight or so in July. 

maybe a ringlet caterpillar

Meadow Brown

OK another non-butterfly but one of my fave photos of the year. This dude (maybe a juv short-winged meadow grasshopper) was deep in the grass and I didn't realise how handsome (s)he was until I got home and zoomed into the image. What a charmer!

similarly this tiny moth with fab antlers

Sometimes I get frustrated chasing Meadow Browns across fields, waiting for them to land. They are not the most spectacular, and too widespread to justify the chase. Possibly the UK's most common butterfly.

Small Skipper, 8th July

I thought this tiny chap was a moth until I found out it was a Small Skipper. Very distinctive way of holding the wings (below). A recent visitor (in last 10 years) to the Lothians, and it was absent from one of the Scottish Butterfly lists. Little black lines on the forewings of the male = sex brand / scent mark. Another one with a lot of charm. Aberlady Nature Reserve.

Small Heath

Common Blue and Dark Green Fritillary in same shot
confusing the photographer, which one to focus on?

Common Blue with uncommon dazzling brilliance

5 Spot Burnet
Another favourite photo of the year. The feet, the iridescence, just spectacular!

I think this might be a 6 Spot Burnet, the spots being in 3 pairs

another 6 Spotter
These are about at the same time as the 5 Spot Burnets - mid July.
Where they go for the rest of the year I have no idea, presumably live as eggs or larvae.

Small Heath 8th July onwards

Common Blue, Small Skipper and Cinnabar caterpillars on ragwort
Photographer loses his shit.

Another tiny gem the Small Copper eluded my camera for a long while. Then when along in Dalmeny Estate I found a scrubby bit of land just back from the beach with plenty of sorrel, the foodplant of this beautiful species. An instant favourite despite being small and tricky to get close to. And has a clever trick of disappearing mid-flight if you don't keep a very close eye on it. Males slightly smaller and with quite a variation of size and markings. The one above has the silver blue dots of the caeruleo punctata variant (clearly the best sort!) Books and photos would suggest this much loved butterfly is quite common, but I have not found it to be so. A trip to Tentsmuir early in sunny September, produced maybe 8 or 10 in one glorious day, otherwise a singular specimen once or twice a year is more the norm. First one 24th July, Dalmeny

Small Whites

More Blues - you can see the stitching on the antennae and wings!

shaded broad bar moth?

 female Common Blue
less blue with markings on upper wing

Only saw 2 Commas this year
Notable for distinctive ragged wing edges and small white comma on underwing

Aberlady Nature Reserve, 5th August


The Wall, previously Wall Brown, is like a Speckled Wood that has been coloured in with an orange felt pen. So naturally I like it a lot. I was concerned I hadn't seen any all year until the 8th August when I cycled past several (beside a wall). Near Kingston, south of North Berwick. I meant to go back for more but this was the only one (or 2) I caught on camera all year. I had looked out for them on a trip down the trails past St Abbs where I had spotted one before, but no joy. They may be on the decline or maybe just more inland than I tend to patrol.

I see a LOT of these (possibly Fox Moth) caterpillars
but never the imago.

common darter, Marl Loch, Aberlady, late August~Oct


common darter

backlit Small Tortoiseshell

Just before September I upgraded to a TZ100. I wanted to stick with a camera I could carry while running but would give good quality results. I was really pleased with a lot of the images although disappointed it was also still possible to take really poor photos too! It operates differently to the previous Lumix, the TZ35, or rather is similar but not the same. So took a bit of adaptation: with butterflies the best results come from standing further back and zooming in, rather than standing as close as possible and jamming the lens in tight! It made me appreciate that folk with DSLRs and huge lenses probably do less running across fields chasing and more spying from a distance. 

This (above) makes the new camera worth it: a shot that wouldn't have worked with the TZ35 - lying down in the grasses chasing a Blue which has descended onto a flower and I am submerged in greenery. The camera focuses on the right stuff, I can't really see the screen and just fire off in hope. The technology softens out the background and seems to recognise the subject. It's not a great shot in terms of identification or clarity but it has loads of atmosphere and being there.

From mid-August onwards I would return to a stand of Sea Buckthorn in Aberlady Nature Reserve where the nettles and flowering thistles attracted Peacocks, Red Admirals, a Comma, and Small Tortoiseshells. If there was no action elsewhere, there'd usually be some Nymphalidae here. I dubbed it the Butterfly Bush and it seemed to draw a crowd even when other similar collections of shrubs and thistles only got the occasional fly-by. 

sea buckthorn behind giving great bokeh

I know it's not a butterfly but I love the heathery colours.

Small Copper, Dalmeny 31st August

One of the first times I was out with the new camera there were hoverflies on a thistle flower in the sunlight and I nearly walked past, then decided to practise doing some close-ups.

love the contrasting colours

Small Copper, Dalmeny

Small Copper Tentsmuir, 2nd September

Speckled Wood, 3rd Sept. Archerfields
2nd or 3rd generation - darker brown more contrast

not a butterfly but spectacular and uncommon 
Carabus Nitens racing across the Pentlands, 9th Sept.

Comma on late flowering Buddleia. 10th Sept

From mid September the butterflies still here either die, migrate South or go into a dormant phase, occasionally appearing on a milder sunny day mid-winter. More info here. Although I saw a Speckled Wood on 24th Sept, it was just Red Admirals beyond that date. Their numbers seemed to swell, or maybe just the places I noticed them, they had gathered in groups or by the dozen. I think the Springwatch team reported an increase in Scotland of Red Admirals of 225% or something. I was impressed and pleased to have some pals around the place long after everyone else had disappeared for Winter.

And one of the venues was the Botanics. There were some late flowering long white plumes in one part of the gardens that the Reds favoured. Plenty of other blooms about, but it was these white flowers they would settle on. I had wondered why there weren't more butterflies in the Gardens earlier in the year, it seems ideal, but I think the answer must be they are discerning about certain flowers and nectar. I returned a couple of times to get my butterfly hit when there were few elsewhere.

There were so many flying about looking for good spots to perch in the September sunlight that you could offer a stance and they would land on you. I looked down to see one had landed on my leg while I was trying to photograph others. I never got bored taking pics of just this one remaining species. Always in search of the perfect photo.

Just as relief from the Red Admirals this last non-butterfly pic is of the extremely cute newt (palmate or smooth?) we found at Aberlady under a board (24th Sept). Not sure if it was preparing to hibernate or just eating snails and rockhoppers, but it was amazingly attractive. (But not very keen to interact.)

Buff Ermine Moth Caterpillar?

Running along Marine Terrace, Gullane on 29th Sept we came across a garden with 3 clumps of these flowers. And 15 or more Red Admirals on each. All records for most butterflies in one photo were smashed! The last butterflies of the year were 2 Red Admirals (or the same one twice) spotted in the woods on the Tyninghame Estate on a run on the 4th November. 

While I have heard that 2017 was a poor year for butterflies I have really enjoyed chasing them through the Summer in search of decent photos. I have sorely felt their absence in the Winter months and am counting the days till they return - I will be keeping eyes peeled from early March on all our East Lothian runs and may even go in search of specific species if I can get any good tips on reliable venues for ones I haven't seen. I will be returning to Tentsmuir near St Andrews. Not only is it a brilliant venue for running and wildlife (and Small Coppers) but they boast on signage of having the Green Hairstreak, which is on my list of things to do!

If anyone knows of good websites on Scottish butterfly venues or likely places to visit do let me know. Here's to a sunny 2018!

Butterflies seen in 2017

Common Blue
Dark Green Fritillary
Green Veined White
Meadow Brown
Orange Tip
Painted Lady
Red Admiral
Small Copper
Small Heath
Small Skipper
Small Tortoiseshell
Small White
Speckled Wood

(Scottish) Butterflies not seen (yet!)

Clouded Yellow
Dingy Skipper
Green Hairstreak
Large Heath
Large Skipper
Large White
Mountain Ringlet
Northern Borwn Argus
Pearl-Bordered Fritillary
Purple Hairstreak
Scotch Argus
Small Blue (UK's smallest!)
Small Pearl-Bordered Fritllary


  1. Great post Pete and some lovely images. For sites to visit try Butterfly Conservation Scotland they may have some info. One day I will venture north again, I really want to see chequered skipper but don't know how to tell the missus!

  2. Thanks Brian, luckily I am happy to explore round Scotland this year and don't have any great need to visit way down South. Quite fancy hunting down Green Hairstreak or Small Blue or some of the more dynamic browns but if it's way down south (Marbled White) it seems like there's better things to do. Can't be a proper addict yet!

  3. Haha! just looked up Chequered Skipper. Not an area known for sunshine. If I am up that way I'll keep my eyes peeled. Long hike from here, never mind from down south!

    1. Yep way over 500 miles (there's a song there somewhere) went to Cairngorms many years ago, in a heatwave! absolutely stunning. Mountain ringlet would be a good challenge.

  4. Just been looking at Karen Woolleys excellent blog and the Chequered Skippers at Glasdrum. Very pretty!

    1. Karen certainly had a good time, great images.